For a limited time Pampers are on sale. Stock up while supplies last. I'm kidding. That clip from Napoleon Dynamite is a riot, though. And don't go throwing away your Huggies just yet. Because the world is getting older, and adult-diaper sales are forecast to rise 50% in the next 5 years, outpacing baby nappies twentyfold. The leading brand for the elderly is actually called Depend, but Huggies sounds so cute. This is a serious issue and not to be wiped over carelessly. In 2050 in the U.S., the population aged 65 and over is projected to be over 80 million, almost double what it is today. So, a lot of Depends.
A recent debate sponsored by Intelligence Squared featured lifespans as its topic. The question: What if we didn’t have to grow old and die? The average American can now expect to live almost 80 years, largely due to improved sanitation and vaccinations before which people left the Earth a lot closer to aged 50. But even though they may be wearing Depends, most people want more. Researchers around the world are tirelessly trying to arrest aging through biotechnology and find a cure for age-related diseases like cancer and dementia.
Ask a person about the ethical and social consequences of radically increasing lifespans and he will likely shrug and say he doesn't care, as long as he can be around to witness them. But many of these same scientists working like alchemists towards immorality neglect ramifications such as overpopulation and depletion of the world's resources. Not to mention boredom. Because let's face it, after you reach, say, my father's age (he will soon be 77) you have pretty much seen it all.
But before we discover our philosopher's stone, before we invent the elixir of life to keep us around forever, we will probably extend lifespans to, say, the triple digits without eradicating disease or aging, which specialists consider itself to be a disease, since aging is a result of a breakdown at the cellular level. Fix the cell, be forever young. Until then, be prepared that should you be among the future individuals to live to see 150 (the longest lifespan to date is roughly 122 years) you will possibly be wearing Pampers for the better part of five decades if not longer. Unlike Uncle Rico, I hope we can afford them.
But it is more likely that you will die. And death and dying are difficult subjects to broach. Nobody seems to want to talk about his own mortality or even that of another. Because as Donne wrote, the death knell you hear when someone near and dear meets his end "tolls for thee." Whether it is this year or the next or in 2050, death will come for you. My father often thinks of his own death, more so now that he has been diagnosed with a condition (PCV) that has a median survival time of 20 years. Suddenly he has a projected end date. Not so fun for someone who views himself as invincible. But my father is also a hypochondriac. Actually it astounds me that he somehow managed to evade the diagnosis that's been waiting for him since his blood counts began to rise in 2012. But he distrusts medical doctors. This itself is a form of prejudice. He had a bad experience with my brother, whose cancer went undiagnosed until it was untreatable. Afterwards he swore of Western medicine, but the irony was that he paid for me to go to medical school. He didn't complain when I left medicine, but wants my advice on treatment for his condition, which I diagnosed. I am officially the most expensive physician alive. It cost $200,000 to get through medical school and the patients I have most effectively treated are my parents, at six-figures per.
But dad has requirements for exactly how he is to go. He wants it to be painless and sudden. No six-month-long wasting away period as with my brother. But he wants forewarning, so he can say his goodbyes. And he wants to be fully conscious, so he won't take morphine and no going in his sleep. Now no death that I know of meets all these criteria. Heart attacks hurt. Strokes may not take you out but you can be sure a CVA will leave you impaired. And cancer is often a protracted death involving many hospital visits or powerful pain meds or both. My dad is an impossible man. So a rare condition affecting 1 in 50,000 would seem to suit him.
Anyway I asked him whose death he admires. If you had to go shopping, whose way of going would you buy. Surely not Christ's. Three days is too long, and hanging on a cross with needles in your limbs and a crown of thorns much to painful. Even for all the glory, which comes too late. Ramana Maharshi, a Christ-like figure in his own right, died at 70 of a tumor in his elbow. But he went through several unsuccessful surgical procedures before drawing the line at amputation. The tumor spread and Maharshi passed, peaceful and emaciated, surrounded by his loving followers. You'd think this would suit my father, but he doesn't like the idea of surgery or cancer. In a bittersweet twist blood dyscrasias are among the few types of cancer without a tumor. The bone marrow just churns out red cells without itself getting enlarged. So he gets his cake (no surgery), he just can't eat it. Which is fine. He's watching his weight. But don't go calling what he has cancer, no sir. I tell him: Dad, cancer is defined as a mutation in the DNA which causes unregulated cell proliferation occurring autonomously and exceeding the body's physiological requirements. You condition qualifies. I don't go to the dentist asking them to fix the hole in my tooth. A cavity is a cavity. Cancer is cancer. Death is . . . you get it.
Why think about death anyway? The cosmic joke is that you spend time staving off the common killers (heart attack, stroke, cancer) only to be hit by a car, which nobody thinks will happen to them, even though motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death in America. Or like former child star Patty Duke, whose son Mackenzie I went to grade school with, you die of a ruptured intestine. Or like the comedian Gary Shandling are struck by a massive heart attack right as you are calling 911. Or like Elvis you die on the toilet while trying to squeeze one out. Better yet, like my aunt's second husband, Yorn, you nod off after a huge Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends, and never wake up. Which dad says might not be that bad. It definitely beats wearing Depends.